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The dilemmas of the Moor of Matacavalos

A passion for Shakespeare directly influenced the novels of Machado de Assis

PAULO CAVALCANTIIn his book The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx mentions Hegel’s comment that all historically important facts happen twice and characters appear twice. Marx added: “Hegel forgot to say that they first appear as a tragedy and then as a farce.” Marx was not familiar with the bookshelf of Machado de Assis, in the Cosme Velho area of Rio de Janeiro. But this was the spirit in which Machado de Assis revisited Shakespeare’s view of the human element. “The author’s many references to the bard were not mere ornaments; they were an in-depth revelation of the characters. An example is found in Dom Casmurro, where the elements of tragedy in Othello were inverted to reveal the farce of the Rio de Janeiro version of the Moor, namely, the main character, Bentinho, lost in the midst of the patriarchal society of the nineteenth century,” explains Adriana Teles, author of the post-doctoral thesis A presença de Otelo em Dom Casmurro: a problemática do trágico em Machado de Assis [The presence of Othello in Dom Casmurro: the problematics of the tragic element in Machado de Assis], with the support of FAPESP.

Although Othello was the underlying plot of Dom Casmurro, Machado de Assis’ novel lacks the tragic contents of the play. Marx was right: the second time around is a farce. “For Machado, subverting tragedy was akin to showing the real face of modern society, where human conflicts are guided by the rules of survival and social behavior is mediated by convenience. This is a world in which the honor and character of Shakespearian tragedies no longer fit in,” says Adriana. The English playwright was the major literary influence on the “ sorcerer” during his entire life, as he himself mentioned in various texts: “One does not comment on Shakespeare, one admires him;” or, “when the British Empire or the American Republic no longer exist, there will be Shakespeare; when nobody speaks English anymore, people will talk about Shakespeare.” Specialists have tracked down more than 200 references on the bard (Adriana’s research revealed more), from 1859, when Machado de Assis was a 20-year old apprentice, up to 1908, when he wrote his last novel, Memorial de Aires, and passed away. Few readers wanted to read Dom Casmurro as a “pastiche” of Othello, in spite of the clues “accidentally” left by the narrator. The “betrayal” of the model is important to understand the real theme of the book – which is not betrayal.

In the course of six decades – from 1900 to 1960, when American feminist Helen Caldwell wrote an essay, O Otelo brasileiro de Machado de Assis [The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis] that unveiled the lack of reliability and the baits of the novel’s narrator, no Brazilian or foreign literary critic had challenged Bentinho’s allegations about Capitu. Even today – with few exceptions – attempts are still being made to “ prove” the betrayal. “In fact, betrayal was never at the core of Machado’s concerns. The book is a subtle analysis of the male phantoms in the realm of patriarchy, in which Machado ironically describes the romantic and tragic-pathetic tendencies of Brazilian culture, which was actually permeated by an anti-tragic spirit,” says literary critic Kathrin Rosenfield, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and author of the research study A ironia de Machado em Dom Casmurro [The irony of Machado in Dom Casmurro] (2007). This “ distance” between discourse and reality is reborn as a farce. “For himself, Bentinho wants a grandiose, tragic drama, similar to a Shakespearian tragedy. However, his attitude reinforces the abyss between Othello’s tragedy and the second-rate drama he acts out,” Adriana agrees.

In the researcher’s opinion, this kind of subversion brings Machado closer to Shakespeare, rather than farther apart. “The nature of the disruption with established parameters guides both writers’ creativity. Shakespeare breaches the units of time, space, and action. Machado inverts the tragedy, incorporates the drama to the novel, and thus blends the genres, as Shakespeare did, reinforcing tragedy with a comic hue,” analyzes the researcher. Othello never hesitates. Bentinho hesitates all the time, is influenced by everything and everybody around him, has childish, melodramatic outbursts and, ever since he was a child, has never had the courage to drive his plans forward.

PAULO CAVALCANTIDominated by his mother, who had promised to send him to a seminary, Bentinho fantasizes about meeting the Emperor on the street and asking him to intercede with his mother. The young girl is the character that takes action and makes him take action, thinking up real ways of working around his mother. This leads the narrator to whisper comparisons with the evil Lady Macbeth into the reader’s ear. Bentinho realizes that he “loves” Capitu as he stands behind the door and listens to the comments of José Dias. The wedding finally takes place, after a long, drawn-out family approval. “Later on, and in line with his personality, Bentinho is eaten up by jealousy and is unable to manifest any passionate action. He is not a passionate Othello; he is a contained human being, in a larva-like state. His attitudes are violent only in terms of their intent, which he keeps to himself,” says Adriana.

Machado de Assis’ hero has no aspirations and takes no action, which deflates the tragic nature of his existence. “When he goes to the theater to see Othello, we realize the contrast between the Shakespearian hero’s will and Bentinho’s lack of will. Bento leaves the theater with a desire to kill and die, but does nothing. The novel portrays a hero being ridiculed by the reference he makes to tragedy. He is unable to separate the distance between his civil-bourgeois world and the Moor’s tragedy,” says the researcher. Thus, the reference that Machado makes to Shakespeare is ironical and inter textual, and is supported by denial, by analogy, and by the contrast with Othello’s pathway. In spite of his admiration for the bard, the “ sorcerer” picks up his tragedy to subvert the base that supports it. “We see a native of Rio de Janeiro, a typical bourgeois from the nineteenth century, far from heroic greatness, locked up in a bland, banal existence, pleased about his ability to hide himself or mask conflicts, with no will or impetus to take action.” Unable to be as violent as Othello, albeit strongly motivated by what he sees on the stage, he does not murder Capitu. Instead, by sending Capitu to exile in Europe, he chooses the death which is “appropriate” for his social class.

“The truth never surfaces, unlike in the Shakespearian play, where the truth becomes evident. The characters are already dead and, at the end, Bentinho only has his own truth. As he did not have a revelation, like Othello did, Bentinho believes that he acted as he should have. Machado places the narrator in the ridiculous position of stating the tragic nature of an existence that is unable to be tragic,” Adriana analyzes. His tragedy is that he is part of a modernity where everybody is deprived of the truth and led to believe that this is the result of a partial reading of potentially ambiguous facts. “He withdraws into himself and refuses to confront himself except in his intimacy and within the space he dominates. Bento lives with this conflict, within his own arrangement. Instead of dealing with the conflict in a passionate confrontation, he lives with the conflict in a cold-blooded, calculating manner. This cold-bloodedness leads him to ignore his wife’s letters and to desire his son’s death from leprosy. The doubt-related dialectic remains.”

In the researcher’s opinion, Othello explodes the world in his search for the truth, while Bentinho has no intention of finding the truth. Bentinho only decides to narrate the facts after everybody has died and he finally learns to live with that which oppresses him. “By maintaining this civil, bourgeois attitude, the timid audience of that time, portrayed in Dom Casmurro, suppresses the truth – whatever it may be – asphyxiating the soul and the action in the nebulous phantoms of resentment. Machado’s fellow human beings are familiar with conflicts, yet avoid identifying them. The novel’s narrator is ambiguous when he subverts cordiality and agrees with it, while at the same time he ironically analyzes – with the utmost discretion – the patriarchal misogyny,” Kathrin points out.

Dom Casmurro summarizes a long relationship between Machado and Shakespeare, the peak of a movement in which Machado’s early novels portrayed female rectitude and women’s firm moral values. His later novels contained narratives of male protagonists whose ambivalent standards of ethical perception were questionable,” says sociologist José Luiz Passos, a professor at the University of California and author of Machado de Assis: romance com pessoas [Machado de Assis: romance with people] (Edusp, 2007). “The novel represents the apex of the writer’s relationship with English literature. In those times, this relationship with European literature was uncommon. The result was stronger emphasis on the character’s psychological development and on the moral emotions of the narrators, a characteristic that distinguished his work from other tendencies entrenched in Brazilian fiction,” he points out.

“In Machado’s opinion, the bourgeoisie principles that typified romantic novels did not reflect Brazil’s social process. In terms of realism, these dilemmas had already been included in the theater for many years; theater in the 1870s was way ahead of novels in terms of the desire to represent a rational reality,” says Passos. It is important to keep in mind that Machado’s aesthetic education was developed through his work as a theater critic from 1855 to 1865. “The reference to delusion was an important point in terms of how the realistic theater and Machado’s novels dealt with the issue of the representation of human actions,” says Passos.

“Up to 1871, Machado and the rest of the country had only had contact with Shakespeare through reading and French versions of Shakespeare’s plays, which deformed their content by adapting them to the neoclassic view, in spite of the efforts of actor João Caetano, who attempted to confer a vital ‘violence’ to the ‘diluted’ versions of plays such as Othello,” says João Roberto Faria, a full professor of Brazilian literature at the University of São Paulo (USP). “During that year, when Ernesto Rossi’s Italian theater company visited Brazil, Machado gained a more direct access to the bard’s world.” “Shakespeare is a revelation to many people,” Machado wrote , making it clear that he included himself in this group and had experienced the great difference between reading a play and watching the play on stage.

“It is not a coincidence that Bentinho confesses, on his way to see Othello, that he had never seen the play before. Seeing the play had a huge an impact on him, to the point of driving him out of his mind, thus revealing the potential of a tragedy being staged. This is a noteworthy insertion of theater into the novel, blending one genre into the other,” says Adriana. From then on, the actions stem directly from theater. Even the view of Othello’s outcome does not change Bentinho’s feelings, which are not coherent with his conclusions. Bentinho laments Desdemona’s fate, yet asks “What would the audience have done if she were truly guilty, as guilty as Capitu?” In other words, if Othello’s wife had really betrayed him, would the audience still have appreciated the play?

“This leads him to the decision not to kill Capitu, because her death would have been ‘fair’ and justice is not a ‘tragic spectacle,’ like the kind he wants stage. He then considers killing himself,” says the researcher. The idea of a stage set is taken to the extreme, and everything that can hamper a grandiose final effect is removed from the “stage.” Prior to killing himself, Bentinho picks up a book by Plutarch and worries as to how the newspapers will describe the color of his trousers. “He makes an effort to create a situation that would be appropriate for a tragic hero, but the daily banality makes this effort look ridiculous. He sets the stage, memorizes the text, but the action does not take place. The tragedy in Dom Casmurro is restricted to the stage, to the performance that he watches. The performance reflects the character’s deep feelings, but in reality there is no space for action, at least not in the world of this Machado character,” Adriana points out. “To be and to seem, a basic dialectic of Machado’s, is actually the dialectic between being and acting, between the face and the mask, between authenticity and dissimulation,” analyzes Faria. That is the question.